Part 1: Introduction

Department of Conservation: Prioritising and partnering to manage biodiversity.

In this Part, we set out:

What biodiversity is and why it matters

The word biodiversity is abbreviated from biological diversity. It means the amount and variety of all biological life on earth, including plants, animals, fungi, micro-organisms, the genes they contain, and the ecosystems on land or in water where they live.

As a remote and isolated group of islands, New Zealand has a wealth of biodiversity.1 Much of New Zealand's indigenous biodiversity is endemic (which means that the flora and fauna do not live anywhere else), with small, self-sustaining, and site-specific populations. These characteristics make populations especially vulnerable to extinction from predation by introduced pests and diseases or from catastrophic events.

As noted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (the Biodiversity Convention):

... biological diversity is about more than plants, animals and micro organisms and their ecosystems – it is about people and our need for food security, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and healthy environment in which to live.2

The state of New Zealand's biodiversity is an important indicator of the health of the country's ecosystems. Those ecosystems underpin the country's prosperity and well-being3 by providing ecosystem services such as soil retention, water purification, improving water yield from catchments, managing carbon, and hazard reduction (such as the role wetlands play in reducing the severity of floods).4 The country's lands and waterways are also an essential part of New Zealand's "clean and green" image, which has helped to make tourism one of New Zealand's most lucrative industries.

In 2012/13, the Department of Conservation (DOC) will spend about $202 million on managing biodiversity. It is difficult to calculate the total amount spent on biodiversity by all central and local government agencies, partly because one sizeable pool of funding for biodiversity work was dispersed among responsible central government agencies in 2006.

Challenges and risks to biodiversity

New Zealand has been classified as one of 34 biodiversity "hotspots" in the world because it is one of the richest reservoirs of plant and animal life on Earth but also one of the most threatened:

The biodiversity hotspots hold especially high numbers of endemic species, yet their combined area of remaining habitat covers only 2.3 percent of the Earth's land surface. Each hotspot faces extreme threats and has already lost at least 70 percent of its original natural vegetation. Over 50 percent of the world's plant species and 42 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate species are endemic to the 34 biodiversity hotspots.5

New Zealand has one of the highest extinction rates in the world. About 2800 known land-based and freshwater species of animals and plants are classified as threatened.6 A 2007 "state of the environment" report7 noted that all threatened indicator species were showing a continued decline in their habitat range and that New Zealand's biodiversity faced the same pressures as it did 10 years earlier. More recent reports have concluded that New Zealand is, at best, slowing the decline of biodiversity.

The challenges to biodiversity that DOC must manage are big and complex. It is responsible for deciding which ecosystems and species can and should be saved. DOC's prioritising decisions will have long-term effects on the environment, the economy, and future generations.8

Resources are scarce, but the problem is large. DOC is currently able to actively manage only about one-eighth of New Zealand's conservation land and about 200 of the 2800 species that are classified as threatened.9 As well as the scale of the challenge to biodiversity, the ecosystems, the species within them, and the threats that they face have no regard for boundaries between public and privately owned environments or how central and local government are organised. Managing biodiversity requires an integrated and collaborative approach that extends across these boundaries.

The purpose of our audit

During 2012/13, we are carrying out a series of performance audits under the theme of Our future needs – is the public sector ready? We are focusing on how public entities prioritise work, develop necessary capabilities and skills, and use information to address foreseen future needs.

In keeping with this theme, we carried out a performance audit to assess how effectively DOC uses the information it has on biodiversity to prioritise its resources. We also assessed how effective DOC has been in working with others to manage indigenous biodiversity to achieve the greatest gains with the resources available.

We decided to focus on DOC's performance in working with others on managing biodiversity because it is an important aspect of its mandate, strategy, and policies.

What we looked at

For 2012/13, DOC has about $202 million available to meet its objective of maintaining and restoring indigenous biodiversity.10 This audit assessed how effectively DOC has directed the resources available to it to manage biodiversity. DOC's mandate, objectives, and new business model described in Part 2 are directed at better prioritising its use of resources and working in partnership with others (inside and outside government) to effectively manage biodiversity. Given this, we focused our audit on three main questions:

  • Has DOC used the information it has to prioritise resources to target risks to indigenous biodiversity?
  • Has DOC taken an integrated, strategic approach to managing indigenous biodiversity in working with other governmental agencies and in its own operations?
  • Has DOC been effective in working with other government and non-governmental agencies or groups in managing indigenous biodiversity?

How we carried out our audit

We reviewed documents and files and DOC's information systems and processes. As well as interviewing stakeholders and staff in Wellington, we visited four DOC regions to study how DOC works with others. This research was used for the case studies in this report (see Parts 5 and 6). The four DOC regions we visited, as shown in Figure 1, were Southland, West Coast Tai Poutini, Wellington Hawke's Bay, and Northland.

We chose these regions to represent different geographical areas, places where we knew there were regional collaborative initiatives and biodiversity projects, and areas where there are threats to ecosystems of national significance and the species within them (such as Waituna Lagoon, as requested by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment).

We also contracted an independent specialist on biodiversity, Professor David Norton, from the University of Canterbury, to peer review our work and this report.11

We spoke to DOC staff, members of the New Zealand Conservation Authority12 and regional Conservation Boards, and people working in other government offices and non-governmental organisations who work with DOC as part of managing biodiversity. We met representatives from community groups and trusts, national and regional representatives of agencies that interact with DOC on biodiversity management, Crown research institutes, the New Zealand Fish and Game Council, Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand (Forest & Bird), and Federated Farmers of New Zealand, as well as commercial enterprises involved in biodiversity projects.

We also visited local initiatives in the four regions and observed practical examples of how DOC works with others to manage biodiversity.

What we did not cover

Biodiversity is a large and complex subject to audit. We limited our performance audit to DOC's prioritising and partnering work for land and freshwater habitats and the species within those ecosystems. Although marine and coastal biodiversity values are critical, for practical purposes we excluded matters associated with managing marine and coastal biodiversity.13

Figure 1
Regions we visited for our case studies

Figure 1 - Regions we visited for our case studies.

This audit did not focus on biodiversity management activities on private land other than how DOC supports others in that work.

We did not focus on DOC's broader international and national context – DOC operates within a complex framework of international agreements, numerous statutes, and national strategies and policies.

We were in contact with the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment when developing the audit scope and to discuss our audit plan. The Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has been working on issues with the commercial use of conservation land, so to avoid duplication we excluded that from the scope of our audit.

Structure of this report

Part 2 describes DOC's mandate, operating intentions and objectives, its funding to manage biodiversity, and its changing business model and structure.

Part 3 discusses how well DOC gathers and uses information on biodiversity to target its resources to achieve its outcome of maintaining and restoring biodiversity. We review some of DOC's more recent prioritisation tools and systems.

Part 4 discusses whether DOC has taken an integrated, strategic approach to managing biodiversity in working with other agencies in the regions and throughout its own operations.

Part 5 provides an overview of the sorts of partnership approaches that we saw working most effectively as well as those where improvements can be made. We used eight case studies to show how DOC has worked with others to manage biodiversity.

Part 6 provides details on each case study and our assessments.

Appendix 1 provides more detail on DOC's functions under the Conservation Act 1987, and Appendix 2 sets out an extract from the Conservation General Policy produced in 2005. Appendix 3 is a checklist for setting up and running collaborative initiatives, and a list of related publications.

1: New Zealand's Fourth National Report to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (2009), page 3.

2: Sustaining life on Earth: How the Convention on Biological Diversity promotes nature and human well-being (2010), The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. See the website for the Biodiversity Convention,

3 :The Natural Resources Sector Briefing to Incoming Ministers (2011), page 12.

4 The Natural Resources Sector Briefing to Incoming Ministers (2011), page 12.

5: See, Where we work, Priority areas.

6: Department of Conservation, Managing natural heritage – a quick guide to DOC's tools and processes, Natural Heritage Management System factsheet 675832.

7: Ministry for the Environment (2007), Environment New Zealand 2007, Wellington, page 353.

8: Biosecurity is also important. Protecting native flora and fauna from harmful incursions provides a secure and stable environment. In a separate audit, we are reviewing the effectiveness of the Ministry for Primary Industries in preparing for, and responding to, biosecurity incursions.

9: Department of Conservation, Managing natural heritage – a quick guide to DOC's tools and processes, Natural Heritage Management System factsheet 675832.

10: This amount includes funds for biodiversity that others will distribute (non-departmental output expenses) – the funding allocated to NZ Biodiversity Funds ($10.5 million) and funding to protect natural and historic places ($19.8 million). See paragraph 2.22.

11: Professor Norton was recommended to us by the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

12: The 13-member New Zealand Conservation Authority advises the Minister of Conservation and the Director-General of Conservation. It approves DOC's statutory strategies and plans. For more information, see

13: Waituna Lagoon is part of a coastal wetland, but our focus was primarily on the wetland and surrounding catchment.

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